On September 14, 2020 whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a Georgia ICE facility, reported that a doctor at the facility has been performing forced sterilizations on detained migrants, specifically removing all or parts of people’s uteruses. The disturbing reports of non-consensual sterilizations were quickly overshadowed in the following days with news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But people of color on Staten Island have not forgotten; they are organizing to defend their reproductive rights and asking all Staten Islanders, regardless of color, party, and creed, to join the fight.
The twenty-seven-page long complaint filed by Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, details the negligence and intentional medical mal-practice concerning the health and safety of detainees. ICDC has been ignoring CDC COVID-19 guidelines and violated ICE’s own Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) for medical care. Detainees are not given adequate PPE, are crammed in spaces where social distancing is impossible, and are delayed or refused medical care and testing when they show symptoms of COVID-19.
Even though medical negligence is the norm, the ICDC still makes an effort to perpetrate acts of violence against immigrant bodies by performing unnecessary and non-consensual sterilizations. The complaint reports that detainees have been sent for procedures for symptoms such as heavy bleeding, which usually does not necessitate a hysterectomy. Wooten stated that the ICDC and cooperating gynecologist do not fully inform the women of the procedures and said that, “they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.” One woman ended up with a hysterectomy because the doctor “accidentally” removed the wrong ovary and then had to remove the cystic one.
“The hysterectomy issue is one of the most aggressive tortures against women of color today in America,” said Staten Island resident and advocate, Jennifer Gray-Brumskine. “Just imagine someone taking your whole uterus out, nothing wrong with it, and you can’t have kids anymore for the rest of your life simply because you are poor, simply because you’re a woman of color.”
Gray-Brumskine worked for the NYC Census and organized for Liberian immigrants to apply for and receive green cards, and she is currently organizing women on Staten Island to petition and bring action to both Congress and the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women in March 2021.
Wooten also reported witnessing a sick-call nurse shredding detainees’ medical request forms and fabricating vital signs without examining them. This kind of medical negligence during a global pandemic appears to be the standard at ICE facilities. Members of La Colmena, a Staten Island-based community job center for immigrants, who were previously detained by ICE reported being forced to live in unsanitary conditions and being ignored by medical professionals when they were sick.
When asked about the whistleblower report and subsequent silence on the matter, Executive Director of La Colmena Yesenia Mata was appalled, but unsurprised.
“You know it comes as no surprise that it wasn’t being exposed as much, especially because a lot of people want to sweep everything under the rug, especially under this administration,” she said. “Some people want to turn the other way and not see the horrific things that are happening.”
Mata also stated that the way ICE has run during the pandemic and the history of their treatment of immigrants is grounds for it to be abolished.
The recent report of non-consensual sterilizations is not an isolated event. The United States has a long history of practicing eugenics especially against people of color. It is a history so long that it inspired race legislation in Nazi Germany and was directly referenced by several prominent Nazi lawyers involved in forming race legislation under the Third Reich.
Nazi laws such as the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases were inspired by U.S. compulsory sterilization laws passed in 1907. Laws forbidding marriage and intercourse between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans mirror anti-miscegenation laws dating as far back as the 1660s. This violence against people of color has continued both clandestinely and codified in law.
Despite the connections to pro-life concerns of the sanctity of child-bearing, conservatives have been unmoved by the report of this violence against women. Often the pro-life movement only brings up arguments against eugenics in reference to Margaret Sanger and her beliefs on the topic as a reason to not support Planned Parenthood. But while the modern Planned Parenthood provides an entire spectrum of affordable reproductive healthcare including cancer screenings, pregnancy care, and abortions, by opposing Medicare for All conservatives offer no support for the same women of color they claim to defend against eugenics.
“For women who are in the far-right, especially here on the island, this is an issue that they themselves need to look at and see that women are women whether they are undocumented or not,” Mata said.
In the history of violence against people of color, white feminists have also often ignored the voices of people of color in the fight for reproductive rights. Gray-Brumskine noted that generally “Black women don’t trust white women because of their past history.” During the 1970s when the topics of abortion and voluntary sterilizations became mainstream, people of color feared that less strict regulations for sterilization would be a danger to them because often they were not given the choice. To not repeat the poor choices of white feminists in the past, all feminists should join in organizing to bring justice to the immigrant women who underwent non-consensual sterilizations.
“We need the white women’s support, we need the Black women’s support, Latina women’s support,” Gray-Brumskine said. “We need every race, the support from every demographic, to make it a united fight for women in America.”
Lost in subsequent news cycles, both political parties have largely ignored the ICDC report and the violence against detainees. Only a few members of Congress have called for an investigation. Outgoing Congressman Max Rose has made claims of rising above party lines and fighting for reproductive rights, but did not make any comment on the report and did not respond to Plea for the Fifth’s request to his office for comment. Both Mata and Gray-Brumskine are unsurprised by Rose’s silence, especially considering his history of dealing with immigrant issues and that he voted to increase ICE’s budget in 2019.
That Rose also sat on the House Committee on Homeland Security was a matter of concern to the immigrant community of Staten Island. Congresswoman-elect Nicole Malliotakis’ position against sanctuary cities and characterization of many immigrants as dangerous and violent does not offer much hope for congressional support for our immigrant communities on Staten Island. Many of the immigrants detained were not convicted of any crimes, or only convicted of misdemeanors.
“The people from La Colmena that were detained did not pose a threat to our national security,” Mata said.
There are real threats to national security that are perpetrated within our borders and supported by Congress. Inhumane treatment of immigrants and the endangerment of women’s reproductive rights – a threat more imminent with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court – are issues that directly affect Staten Islanders and should be properly addressed by our elected officials.
This is the first in a Plea for the Fifth series on Staten Island Immigration Views.
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